Umberto Eco Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Umberto Eco was a well-known academician when his first novel, Il nome della rosa, was published in Italy in 1980. By the time the book was translated into English by William Weaver as The Name of the Rose in 1983, Eco had achieved literary superstardom. With its medieval setting, Sherlock Holmes-like main character, and seemingly traditional detective plot, The Name of the Rose was a popular and critical success, later made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

In addition to achieving worldwide popularity, the novel was also a sort of philosophical treatise, a place for Eco to test his own theories of signs and language. The Name of the Rose clearly demonstrates the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer who also reveled in both philosophy and detective fiction.

Eco followed this novel in 1988 with Il pendolo di Foucault, translated into English by William Weaver and published as Foucault’s Pendulum in 1989. This volume does not fit easily into the mystery and detective genre because it is in many ways a parody; nevertheless, the book, with its endless array of esoteric clues and obligatory corpses has led many critics to see in it the inspiration for Dan Brown’s 2003 The Da Vinci Code.

Although Eco has offered only two novels to the field of mystery and detective fiction, his contribution has nonetheless been enormous, largely because of the way he has both expanded and subverted the traditional conventions of the genre.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Umberto Eco (EHK-oh) is known primarily for his scholarly work in semiotics and his extensive writing on language and culture. He has published numerous essays, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles in works including Enciclopedia filosofica and the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. He has been a columnist for Il Giorno, La Stanma, and other newspapers and magazines. His essays and reviews have also been published in L’Espresso, Corriere della sera, Times Literary Supplement, and Nouvelle revue française. Essay collections include Cinque scritti morali (1997; Five Moral Pieces, 2001), Il secondo diario minimo (1992; How to Travel with a Salmon, and Other Essays, 1994), and Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays (1986). Well-known scholarly pieces include Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio (1984; Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984), The Limits of Interpretation (1990), and La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993; The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995). Eco has two works of juvenile fiction to his credit—I tre cosmonauti (1988; The Three Astronauts, 1995) and La bomba e il generale (1989; The Bomb and the General, 1989).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Umberto Eco has received twenty-four honorary doctorates from universities in Europe, North America, and South America. He has served on the editorial boards of several scholarly publications, including Semiotica, Poetics Today, Structuralist Review, Text, and Alfabeta. He also founded and edited the journal VS: Versus—Quaderni di studi semiotici.

For his novel The Name of the Rose, Eco won several prizes and nominations, including the Italian Premio Strega and Premio Anghiari (1981); the Prix Medicis for best foreign novel (1982); a Los Angeles Times fiction prize nomination (1983); and an award for best fiction book from the Association of Logos Bookstores. In 1986, Jean-Jacques Annaud directed a film adaptation of The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville. Eco also received the Columbus Award of the Rotary Club of Florence (1983); the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France, 1985); the Marshall McLuhan Award-UNESCO Canada; and an award from the Canadian communications company Teleglobe.

Eco was a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna in Italy, where he also directed programs for communication sciences and publishing. He also was a visiting professor or guest lecturer at many of the Western world’s most prestigious universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia. Beginning in 1992, he was a member of the UNESCO International Forum and of the Académie Universelle des Cultures in Paris. His novels have been translated into many languages and have enjoyed remarkable international success.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Umberto Eco’s view, how does time impose an order on the universe?

How does Eco use his knowledge of medieval history in his writing?

What does Eco mean by contending that context gives meaning to time?

What role does psychology play in the works by Eco that you have read?

What is Eco’s attitude toward using scientific advances in the interpretation of ancient texts?


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bondanella, Peter E. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Bondanella offers a study of Eco’s work, demonstrating how his fiction grows out of his intense study of both medievalism and semiotics.

Bouchard, Norma, and Veronica Pravadelli, eds. Umberto Eco’s Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation. New York: P. Lang, 1998. A collection of academically oriented essays; some background in semiotics would be useful before reading these. Includes an essay by Eco titled “How and Why I Write.”

Boym, Svetlana. “Conspiracy Theories and Literary Ethics: Umberto Eco, Danilo Kis, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Comparative Literature 51 (Spring, 1999): 97-122. Analyzes Eco’s use of the Protocols, themselves fictions taken as true, in writing a fiction, Foucualt’s Pendulum, in which the fictional has real-life results.

Caesar, Michael. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Summarizes Eco’s theories, focusing largely on his academic work. Intended as an introductory guide.

Coletti, Theresa. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory, 1988.


(The entire section is 570 words.)